Thanks for the heads-up from Alana DeJoseph’s (Mali 1992-94) who forwarded this essay by Warren Wiggins, co-author with Bill Josephson, of “The Towering Task” the founding document that Shriver used in creating the Peace Corps. Warren’s daughter, Karen Wiggins-Dowler, sent the article to Alana, writing: “I was going through a box of family archives when I ran across this Peace Corps reflection written by my father. I don’t know if you have finished your research yet but thought that you would enjoy reading the reflection especially about the “risk” assessment with the creation of the Peace Corps.”
Karen also is kind enough to let me post her father’s short essay so all of us in the worldwide Peace Corps Community might have the opportunity to read, after all these years, what one of the key founders had to say about the Peace Corps becoming a reality. — JC
What Has It All Meant?
For one thing, the Peace Corps was one of many forces that helped the third world peoples to change and grow so that, from their viewpoint, the originally designed Peace Corps has less and less relevance to their lives, to their countries.
Second, the history of the Peace Corps and its accomplishments as measured against its initial purposes are of such high order that we can take heart that we did succeed in launching a new innovative enterprise that sustained itself. There is no reason that we should not be able to again come up with quite new approaches reflective of the new moods in the United States and overseas.
In considering how to contemplate meeting our future needs for new forms, a different retrospective look at the Peace Corps accomplishments is useful. If we rolled the dice in 1960 and 1961 and came up with a new winner that has stood the test of decades—we now need to ask: How was it possible for the federal government to initiate a new and somewhat darling—or bold—experiment that was well responded to by U.S. citizenry and the overseas development people? What were the things that enabled the U.S. government to successfully launch a new tool, an approach? What were the significant factors that enabled the Peace Corps to be born, to be blessed, and to survive? And how it could happen in systems of the federal agencies and department when the Peace Corps as designed to be anti-bureaucratic-when many of its goals were opposite of the civil service tradition, when many of its loud and arrogant pronouncements indicated pride in its renunciation of some hallowed aspects of its parent agency, the Department of State; and when it relied on fresh youth to do a peaceful job of enormous importance with just three months of training?
The innovative birth of the Peace Corps is important to America as a retrospective case study as America asks itself what will replace the old internationalism. It can’t have been a virgin birth; it was not an accidental freak occurrence; maybe there are more where it came from.
How did it happen?
Everyone knows that Kennedy was the symbol around which the Peace Corps found its success. “ASK NOT” was the clarion call that could, and did, support lots of initiatives including the Peace Corps. But once having set an ASK NOT national state, once personally deciding to ask Shriver to recommend what to do with the idea, and once personally having said “go” its implementation format, the role of presidential leadership was nearly all ceremonial. The imagery and political benefits to the presidency far outweighed the minimal costs for his ceremonial involvement. The role of Kennedy was crucial but the investment in that role by the president was minimal. I wonder what Kennedy thought on March 6, 1963, when he opened the New York Times and read columnist James Reston comment:
“Of all the agencies of the federal government only the Peace Corps has surpassed the hopes and claims of the Kennedy administration….[It] stands above the rest as the only thing new and vigorous that has managed to avoid the pessimism of intractable problems.”
Central to the process of creation was the belief by everyone that risk was an essential ingredient that was NOT to be avoided—minimized, yes, but avoided, no. Significant risk was thought to be a positive feature. The Peace Corps was not crucial to anything; therefore it—and all associated—could be, and should be, at risk. It was valuable if it worked—but it only sought those who could risk failure—from the Volunteer through Shriver. The Volunteers and staff risked their time and to some extent, their reputations in something that might well have flopped. But during the time they were at risk they were proud of the risk—it was an added positive element in the components of their service. With risk as a full positive ingredient, the right kind human resources were assembled that could enhance the chances for success of the institutional innovation.
In retrospect, it is also important to observe that it is probably true that there was but one moment in time for the successful launching of the Peace Corps. If it had not been done in the early months of 1961 it probably would never have happened. This observation takes into account the new President, the Congress, and the then responsiveness of the nation to the ASK NOT theme. Even wartime provides few experiences which compare with the Peace Corps for recognizing that the time was of the essence; that quick movement was the order of the day. It is hard to believe, but it is true: A widely diverse group of people met at the Mayflower Hotel for the first time at the beginning of the second week of February 1961. Most of them were new to each other. The issue was should there be a National Youth Corps (Point for Youth Corps?) or not? And if so what should be its characteristics? How big should it be? When should it start? Who should run it? Should it be private or public? If public, where should it be housed? AND THREE WEEKS LATER on March 1, 1961 a few federal agency was in existence, with money in the bank, with ample leadership—full time and on board, and with an articulated purpose and implementation format that was announced by the president. And the only urgency was to get some ugly Americans abroad in the boondocks of the third world to live with the world’s poor and to do jobs that had yet to be found.
Six months later the Congress would approve the agency that was in being with Volunteers already onboard and would appropriate money for a bold experiment that had already left the launching pad, for better or the worse.
It is now popular in corporate philosophical writings about innovation to say, “Ready, Fire, Aim” in talking about management techniques. For the Peace Corps in the last three weeks in February 1961, it clearly was FIRE, AIM, READY. The time was now or never: consummation, at first sight, introductions and love were to follow.
It is not the purpose of this paper to talk about the importance of national leadership, both public and private, to better think through their responsibilities for searching out ways to foster a greater amount of innovation for approaches to many of our social, political and economic problems. However, it does seem appropriate in reflection on the success of the Peace Corps, to assert that national leadership, both public and private can learn more from further thinking about the examples of this and other successful innovations; thinking about what makes them work—and then taking steps to utilize the knowledge.
The Returned Volunteer with his or her enhanced personhood is probably the greatest “product” of the Peace Corps. A better understanding of how and why this product came into being could be an equally important part of the answer
to “What has it all meant?”
— Warren Wiggins